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EDUCATION

College Cash Draws Part-Time Workers

UPS says its 'Earn and Learn' program, which pays up to $23,000 in education aid, has helped to recruit and retain young employees. Some students find it's just what they need.

November 05, 2000|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Trevis Sims never thought he wanted to work for United Parcel Service.

The 18-year-old college student from South-Central Los Angeles had heard from friends that the UPS warehouse work was tough and exhausting. It seemed easier to work at the mall. But Sims changed his mind after a UPS recruiter said the company would help pay his college costs under a program called "Earn and Learn."

The program is an unusual effort by the transport company to make itself the employer of choice for America's college students. The UPS recruiter "told me some stuff about the job, and it was like, whatever," Sims said. "But then they said something about Earn and Learn, and I said, that sounds pretty good."

The program, started last year, offers to pay up to $15,000 in fee reimbursements and $2,000 yearly in forgivable student loans for students willing to unload boxes part-time in the company's transport hubs. In all, it allows UPS employees a lifetime maximum of $23,000 in educational aid.

By offering workers the enticement of college aid, UPS hopes to gain an advantage in the competition for low-wage, part-time workers.

UPS' willingness to pay more than $9 million in education assistance yearly shows how scarce those workers have become in a heated economy.

Tuition reimbursement programs are common at large companies, but the UPS program is unusual because it is aimed at unskilled, part-time warehouse workers, not the professionals who usually benefit from corporate tuition programs.

UPS recruiters chose to focus on college students because the firm's part-time schedules and evening shifts have long appealed to such workers. Their aim was to reduce the company's considerable turnover, and increase its work force.

To date, more than 10,000 UPS employees nationally have enrolled in the Earn and Learn program, of a total work force of about 300,000. In the Los Angeles area, nearly 600 workers have taken advantage of the educational assistance, local managers said.

Earn and Learn participants are 30% more likely to remain with the company than other workers, the company said. The program also has proven a powerful recruiting tool. Bobby Esquival, a work force planning manager for UPS in the Los Angeles area, said students' first question for recruiters is about the program. "It's not benefits and it's not the wage rate," he said.

Elsewhere in the country, UPS has taken educational assistance even further, recently going so far as to offer college classes at UPS workplaces.

In Louisville, Ky., a program called Metropolitan College enrolls 2,000 students who combine their studies with part-time work at the company's air transport hub.

The program is a partnership of UPS, a local university, a community college and local government. UPS pays about 44% of the college's budget, said Executive Director Dan Ash.

Such efforts have proved well worth the cost, said John Kinney, UPS work force development manager in Louisville, where, for example, there used to be nearly 100% yearly turnover among UPS workers. But among Metropolitan College students, turnover is only about 15%.

Educators Warn of Working Too Much

Some educators caution that students should compare the costs and benefits of such programs with alternative ways of financing their education, such as student loans.

They say that students who work more than 20 hours a week while attending college full time may jeopardize their studies. National surveys show that "the negative effect goes up with the hours worked," said Laura Horn, an MPR Associates research associate who has studied students' working patterns.

But employers are likely to continue their efforts to recruit students as pressure to find part-time workers grows.

"We have serious, serious challenges in the future because of these labor market conditions," Esquival said.

For Sims, who is a student at Los Angeles Southwest College, UPS' offer to help with college costs made the company so attractive that he has quit his retail job.

Now he works about 24 hours a week in the company's Vernon facility for $8.50 per hour, unloading boxes from 45-foot trailers at a rate that is measured against the clock. The company tracks each worker's performance and posts the numbers on the wall, Sims said.

The work is tough: Inside the trailers, "it's dusty, and you might not breathe in there," he said. "In summer, it's 115 degrees."

Nonetheless, he said, he likes the camaraderie and the feeling of working hard.

Most of all, he likes the fact that the job will help him realize his goal of transferring to a four-year university or culinary school.

"I'm pretty much on my own for college," he said. "I will have this to help me out."

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